Bartleby the Scribener
What does the the narrator mean by Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity Bartleby the Scrivener can be described as a commentary on the irreducible irrational in human existence. One example of Bartleby’s absurdity is his deliberate choice to face the blank wall. Instead of facing his desk out in the open, Bartleby chooses to face a blank wall. Bartleby’s catchphrase “I would prefer not to” is also absurd. Bartleby never refuses to do his work. Preferring not implies Bartleby does not see the point of his duties. He views the work as pointless or absurd.
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The final words written in Bartleby, “Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity! ” is also a comment on the absurdity of humanity. The narrator’s final statement is a lament to Bartleby’s absurd life. Bartleby’s job before working in the law office was in a dead letter office. Dead letters are a symbol for the absurd. Because the letters are deemed undeliverable, the letters are destroyed in order to protect any personal information contained in the letters. An undeliverable letter serves no purpose and therefore, is absurd Bartleby the Scrivener Summary
The narrator, an elderly lawyer who does a comfortable business helping wealthy men deal with mortgages, title deeds, and bonds, relates the story of the strangest man he has ever known. Bartleby is a new addition to the narrator’s staff. The narrator already employs two scriveners, Nippers and Turkey. Nippers suffers from indigestion, and Turkey is a drunk, but the office survives because in the mornings Turkey is sober even though Nippers is irritable, and in the afternoon Nippers has calmed down even though Turkey is drunk.
Ginger Nut, the office boy, gets his name from the little cakes he brings the men. Bartleby comes in answer to ad, and the narrator hires the forlorn looking young man in hopes that his calmness will soothe the temperaments of the other scriveners. One day, when Bartleby is asked to help proofread one of the documents he copied, he answers simply, “I would prefer not to. ” It is the first of many refusals. To the dismay of the narrator and the irritation of the other employees, Bartleby takes part in fewer and fewer duties around the office.
The narrator makes several attempts to reason with Bartleby and learn about him, but Bartleby always responds the same way when asked to do a task or give out information about himself: “I would prefer not to. ” One weekend, when the narrator stops in at the office, he discovers that Bartleby is living at the office. The loneliness of Bartleby’s life strikes the narrator: at night and on Sundays, Wall Street is as desolate as a ghost town. He alternates between pity and revulsion for Bartleby’s bizarre behavior. Bartleby continues to refuse duties, until finally he is doing no work at all.
And yet the narrator cannot get him to leave. The scrivener has a strange power over his employer, and the narrator feels he cannot do anything to harm this forlorn man. But his business associates begin to wonder at Bartleby’s presence at the office, since he does no work, and the threat of a ruined reputation forces the narrator to do something. His attempts to get Bartleby to go are fruitless. So the narrator moves his offices to a new location. But soon afterward, the new tenants of the narrator’s old offices come to him asking for help: Bartleby will not leave.
When they oust him from the offices, Bartleby haunts the hallways. The narrator goes to see Bartleby in one last attempt to reason with him, but Bartleby rejects him. For fear of being bothered by the anti-Bartleby folks, the narrator stays away from work for a few days. When he returns, he learns that Bartleby has been put in prison. At the prison, Bartleby seems even more glum than usual. The narrator’s friendliness is rebuffed. The narrator bribes a turnkey to make sure Bartleby stays well fed. But when the narrator returns a few days later, Bartleby has died. He preferred not to eat.
Some time afterward, the narrator hears a rumor that Bartleby worked in a Dead Letter Office. The narrator reflects that the dead letters would have made anyone of Bartleby’s temperament sink into an even darker gloom. The letters are emblems for our mortality and the failure of our best intentions. Through Bartleby, the narrator has glimpsed the world as the miserable scrivener must have seen it. The closing words of the story are the narrator’s resigned and pained sigh: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity! ” About Bartleby the Scrivener Melville finished his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, when he was all of thirty-two years old.
Still a young writer, he had crafted one of the most incredibly dense and imaginative works in all of literature, a book now praised by many as the greatest novel in English. But Moby-Dick failed in its own time, slammed by critics and spurned by readers; Melville’s truths were too hard to hear. It would be decades after Melville’s death before the power of his work was recognized. Not surprisingly, Melville’s writing after Moby-Dick is often preoccupied with the question of communication. In the novella Billy Budd, Melville’s second most famous work, a young man’s speech impediment makes it impossible for him to defend his innocence.
Benito Cereno also ends with a classic moment of failed communication, as the tormented slave ship captain is utterly unable to convey to his rescuer the vital truth that has destroyed him. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is also the story of failed communication, and of the impossibility of connection between human beings. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is now one of the most famous short stories of the nineteenth century. In 1852, Melville was asked by Putnam’s magazine to contribute a work of short fiction. He began by writing a story about a young wife named Agatha who waits seventeen years for news from her husband, who left to seek work.
As Melville conceived the story, the mailbox was an essential symbol: as time passes, the unused mailbox rots and falls apart. Word never comes. This story, though appealing for its symbolism, proved unworkable as fiction. Melville abandoned it, although the forlorn mailbox and the absent mail reworked themselves into the Dead Letter Office at “Bartleby”‘s haunting ending. “Bartleby the Scrivener” was published in 1853, to not much fanfare. As with all of Melville’s good work, complexity alienated his readers. In many ways, “Bartleby” is the one of the first stories of corporate discontent.
Melville was a child of New York City, and the story unfolds on Wall Street. The scriveners are part of the machinery of modern industry and commerce; they are educated men who do tedious work. “Part of the machinery” seems an apt description of their work: later the services they performed were done by machines. In this world, where a man does his work, earns his pay, and goes on and on until he dies, Bartleby is a freak and an outcast. He is a profoundly depressed and lonely man, who seems completely unable to find work that will satisfy him.
Life itself is weary to him. He cannot find a place in the world, and so he dies. His employer, an elderly lawyer who goes unnamed, tries but fails to connect with Bartleby. Somehow, he is able to empathize with the strange scrivener, but help him he cannot (or will not). At the end of the tale, one of the questions of the story concerns their relationship: did the narrator fail Bartleby? If he did, was the failure avoidable? How responsible is one man for the salvation of another? Even more disturbing, one wonders if Bartleby is not the only one who is doomed.
The world that plunged him into gloom is seen in a new light, and the narrator and his employees, who have adapted to this world, seem diminished by their numbness to it. Character List The Narrator An elderly man, and an “eminently safe” one. He makes his living helping rich men deal with their legal documents, and he is convinced that the easiest path is always the best one. Bartleby exerts a strange power over him: the narrator is simultaneously repulsed and moved to pity, and he is powerless to compel Bartleby to do anything. Through Bartleby, the narrator sees his world and the human condition in a new and unsettling way.
Bartleby The pale and forlorn scrivener, or legal copyist. Bartleby is incredibly passive, quiet, never becoming angry. But he is also unyielding. Life itself is pointless to him, and he cannot pretend enthusiasm for it. His trademark sentence, “I would prefer not to,” marks his continuing disengagement from the world. Each time Bartleby utters it, he is refusing not only a task, but one of the rituals that make up a normal life. He ends by “preferring not to” eat, which kills him. Turkey Another copyist. He is an elderly drunk, productive in the mornings but sloshed by the afternoons.
When drunk, he is highly excitable. He and Nippers provide comic relief, and are caricatures rather than rounded characters. Nippers Another copyist. He is a young man plagued, as the narrator tells us, by the two evils of ambition and indigestion. His indigestion makes him irritable and angry in the morning, but as it fades he becomes more calm. Thus Nippers is productive when Turkey is not, and vice-versa. Ginger Nut The twelve-year-old office boy. He is named after the cakes he brings for the men. The new tenants and the landlord After the narrator moves to rid himself of Bartleby, the new tenants and the andlord of the old office come to the narrator to ask him to do something about Bartleby, who refuses to leave. One of them threatens a scandal if the narrator will not help them. The Grub-man One of the turnkeys at the Tombs, the prison where Bartleby is sent. For a bribe, he offers to make sure Bartleby is well-fed Major Themes The world of work and business “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of the first great stories of corporate discontent. The description of the office is incredibly bleak, and the landscape of Wall Street is completely unnatural. The work environment is sterile and cheerless.
Yet most adapt to it, with varying degrees of success. Though the narrator is a successful man, he is a victim, in some ways, of progress. He has lost the post he occupied during the central events of the story, as the position was deemed redundant and eliminated. We learn later that Bartleby may have lost a job due to similar bureaucratic change. The modern economy includes constant and unfeeling change, which comes at a cost. Melville often describes the world through concise and telling descriptions of the environment. The character of the world of work and business is most often evoked through physical description of the landscape.
In the final prison scene Melville’s description of environment extends the scope of the story from the business world to the general human condition. Bartleby cannot pretend to have enthusiasm for this bleak world, and so he disengages from it, in stages, until he dies. Doubling Doubles make for an important thematic device. Through doubles, Melville suggests our connection to other human beings. Nippers and Turkey are like two faces of a coin, as are, finally, Bartleby and the narrator. With Bartleby, Melville is constantly evoking him as a kind of phantom double. The descriptions of him frequently cast him as either a ghost or a corpse.
At the end of the story, Bartleby’s significance expands, and he becomes not only a double for the narrator but also a kind of double for all of humanity. Responsibility and Compassion How responsible is the narrator for Bartleby’s salvation? Our narrator fails the scrivener, who clearly needs help, but Melville in no way demonizes his narrator. In fact, the narrator seems to go to greater lengths than most people would in his efforts to help Bartleby. But it seems far short of what is necessary, and indisputably the narrator stops short of his limits. Should there be limits to our will to help a man, if his life is at stake?
Is writing off a suffering man by saying he’s responsible for himself only a way to excuse our own lack of compassion? Isolation and the failure to connect Bartleby is one of the most isolated characters in all of literature. Bartleby’s environment cuts him off from nature and often, from other men. By day, Bartleby’s window stares at a wall. Wall Street is a bleak and unnatural landscape, and Bartleby also stays there at night, when the bustling human population vanishes and the streets become desolately empty. The narrator makes attempts to learn about Bartleby and help him, but all attempts meet with failure, and the narrator gives up.
Mortality Mortality plays a role in “Bartleby,” but not in the usual sense. Death pervades the story, not as the event in time that finishes a life, but as a kind of poison permeating every aspect of the world we live in. The act of living is the real death. Living is a tiring and arduous process, full of numbing compromises and submission to meaningless tasks. Our mortality is unavoidable, and our best intentions are often futile. The final image of the story is the Dead Letter Office, where the last undelivered communications to the dead are burned without ever having been read of Pages 3-14
First Section (pp 3-14) Summary The elderly narrator promises to relate what he knows about a peculiar man, one Bartleby, a scrivener (copying clerk) who worked for him some time ago. Before he gets into Bartleby’s story, he introduces himself and the other employees of his office. Of himself, he says that he is a man always convinced that the easiest path is best. Though a lawyer, he never goes before juries or judges: he runs a business dealing with rich men’s bonds, mortgages, and title deeds. He takes no risks: “”All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man” (4).
A short time before the central story begins, the narrator had been appointed Master in Chancery, a position that has since been eliminated. In an aside, the narrator says that he considers the elimination of the post a premature act, particularly since he’d counted on the lifelong security guaranteed by the job. The offices of our story are on Wall Street. On one side, the windows look on the interior of a light shaft. On the other side, the view is of a brick wall. Two copyists and an office boy work for the narrator at the time before Bartleby’s arrival. The first copyist is Turkey.
Turkey is productive in the mornings, but he’s drunk by noon. From that point on, he is less than productive, but the narrator’s attempts to send him home early have never met with success. When drunk, he’s brash and over-enthusiastic. Nippers, the second copyist, is “the victim of two evil powers ambition and indigestion” (9). Though not a drinker, young Nippers’ natural temperament is so irritable that it hardly matters. But because his irritation is caused by indigestion, his irritability wanes as the day goes on. Thus Turkey is productive while Nippers is foul-tempered, and Nippers is productive while Turkey is drunk.
Ginger Nut, the office boy, is a lad of twelve whose nickname comes from the ginger nut cakes he fetches for the men. Bartleboy responds to an ad the narrator put in the paper. He is a pale and miserable-looking man: “I can see that figure now pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” (11). He also describes Bartleby as “motionless. ” The narrator hopes Bartleby’s quietness will calm the hot tempers of the other two copyists. The office is divided into two rooms, one occupied by Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut, and the other occupied by the narrator.
Behind the narrator’s desk is a bust of Cicero, the great Roman writer and orator. The narrator installs Bartleby in his own room, putting him at a desk by a window that looks out onto a wall. Bartleby’s workstation is separated from the narrator’s by a folding screen. Part of a scrivener’s job is the tedious work of double-checking a copy’s faithfulness to the original. One man reads from the copy, while the other looks at the original. One day, when the narrator calls Bartleby to assist him, Bartleby answers simply, “I would prefer not to” (13).
Though the narrator is initially angry, Bartleby’s refusal is so listless, so utterly without violence or ill will, that the narrator lets it go. He proofreads with another employee. Analysis The narrator’s initial self-characterization is important to the story. He is a “safe” man, one who takes few risks and tries above all to conform. The most pragmatic concerns of financial security and ease of life are his priorities. He has made himself perfectly at home in the modern economy: he works as a lawyer dealing with rich men’s legal documents. He is therefore an opposite or complement to Bartleby in many ways.
He is also ill suited to be entrusted with the salvation of another. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of the first great stories of corporate discontent. The emptiness of modern business life is an important theme. The description of the office is incredibly bleak: on one side, the windows open onto a light shaft, and on the other, the windows look out onto a brick wall. The landscape of Wall Street is completely unnatural, and one is cut off from nature and almost all living things. At night, this isolation also includes the absence of people.
The work environment is sterile and cheerless. Yet most adapt to it, with varying degrees of success. Though the narrator is a successful man, he is a victim, in some ways, of progress. He has lost the post he occupied during the central events of the story, as the position was deemed redundant and eliminated. The modern economy includes constant and unfeeling change, which comes at a cost. Doubling is a recurring theme in “Bartleby. ” Bartleby is a phantom double of our narrator, and the parallels between them will be further explored later. Nippers and Turkey are doubles of each other.
Nippers is useless in the morning and productive in the afternoon, while Turkey is drunk in the afternoon and productive in the morning. Nippers’ ambition mirrors Turkey’s resignation to his place and the sad uneventfulness of his career, the difference coming about because of their respective ages. Nippers cherishes ambitions of being more than a mere scrivener, while the elderly Turkey must plead with the narrator to consider his age when evaluating his productivity. Their vices are also parallel, in terms of being appropriate vices for each man’s respective age.
Alcoholism is a vice that develops with time. Ambition arguably is most volatile in a man’s youth. These two characters are obviously not fleshed out; they are caricatures of different personalities found in the business world, and their silliness is stretched beyond the point of believable realism. They provide valuable comic relief in what is otherwise a somber and upsetting tale. From the beginning, the description of Bartleby is striking. He is a person who seems already dead: he is described alternately as one would describe a corpse or as one would describe a ghost.
Pale from indoors work, motionless, without any expression or evidence of human passion in him at all, he is a man already beaten. Even his famous statement of non-compliance, “I would prefer not to,” is an act of exhaustion rather than active defiance. His success at getting away with his uncooperativeness comes from his very passivity, which seems to cast a spell over the narrator. It is not “I will not” but “I would prefer not,” emphasizing that Bartleby is acting out of emotional response rather than some philosophical or ethical choice. Bartleby will detach from the world in stages, beginning with this first statement.
With each time he reiterates the statement, he is renouncing one more piece of the world and its duties. The final renunciation will be of living itself, characteristically arrived at indirectly by the preference not to eat. Pages 14-25 Second Section (pp. 14-25) Summary A few days later, the narrator needs to proofread four quadruplicates of an important document. He calls in all of his employees to sit and proofread while he reads aloud from the original, and all of them come except for Bartleby. When called on specifically, Bartleby answers as before, “I would prefer not to. When the narrator tries to reason with him, Bartleby simply repeats, “I would prefer not to. ” The narrator becomes agitated, and is so taken aback by Bartleby’s refusals that he looks to his employees for support. Because it is morning, Turkey is calm and measured and Nippers is angry. Ginger Nut replies, smiling, that he thinks Bartleby is not quite right in the head. But the narrator lets it pass, and, as Bartleby won’t budge, the men get on with their work. Over the next few days, the narrator observes that Bartleby never leaves his desk.
He seems to live entirely on the ginger nut cakes brought to him by the office boy. For some reason, something about Bartleby touches the narrator. He’s concerned that if dismissed, Bartleby will be vulnerable to other employers who will be less forgiving of his eccentricities. He resolves to help Bartleby if he can. But sometimes Bartleby’s refusals anger him. One afternoon, he loses his temper. When he goes to his employees to ask their opinion, Nippers is mild and Turkey wants to punch Bartleby’s lights out (it being afternoon). The narrator calms Turkey down and returns to his office, closing the doors.
He makes a series of requests to Bartleby, but the answer is always the same. At one point, he roars Bartleby’s name until Bartleby appears from behind his screen: “Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage” (19). Although the narrator considers some kind of drastic action, at the end of the day he simply goes home. Days pass. Bartleby’s good qualities reconcile him to the narrator: he is constant, almost always industrious if he isn’t in one of his reveries, and is always there.
He is at the office first in the morning, and is the last to leave. One Sunday, when the narrator is on his way to Trinity Church to hear a famous preacher, he decides to stop in at the office. When he tries to get through the door, he finds resistance from inside. Bartleby is there, in a state of undress, and he says that he would prefer not to admit the narrator. He suggests the narrator go for a walk. When the narrator returns after a short walk, Bartleby is gone. But the narrator finds evidence that Bartleby has been living at the office.
He sleeps on a sofa in the corner, and there is a razor and a ratty old towel. This revelation moves the narrator. Wall Street is completely empty when not in business. He searches Bartleby’s desk, and finds Bartleby’s money wrapped in a little handkerchief. He reflects on Bartleby’s situation. Although he feels pity for Bartleby, the man also repulses him. The passage is worth quoting at length: My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.
So true it is, and so terrible, too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. (pp. 24-25) The narrator doesn’t make it to Trinity Church that day. He resolves to ask Bartleby some questions about his past.
If Bartleby does not answer, the narrator will dismiss him, although he will try to help him with expenses if Bartleby should wish to return to his place of origin. Analysis The scenes in which the narrator asks the advice of his employees are always comical in tone. Each man reacts according to the dictates of the time of day: if it is morning, Nippers is fiery and Turkey benign, and if it is afternoon, Turkey is belligerent and Nippers calm. Their predictable reactions underscore their status as symbols or types rather than realistic characters. They also serve as the clowns of the story.
Bartleby and the narrator are more real, but both of them also have powerful allegorical roles. Note that these two share an office room, just as Nippers and Turkey do. Increasingly, Bartleby is described in ghostly terms, and a perceptive reader will soon realize that the ghost is in some ways the narrator’s phantom double. Note how often we see Bartleby as phantom, as when the narrator roars his name until he appears: “Like a very ghost, agreeably to the the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage” (19). Later, we learn that Bartleby haunts the building.
Like a ghost, he lives in the office when no one else is there, when Wall Street is a desert, a landscape both completely unnatural and forlornly empty. The narrator senses that there are parallels between himself and the scrivener, and Bartleby’s gloom infects him: “Before, I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (23). Bartleby’s plight draws the narrator into depths of feeling that he did not know he was capable of.
Part of Bartleby’s power over the narrator is that he somehow sees Bartleby as a part of himself. He, too, has been forced to adapt to the business world. But while he has adapted and gone through the consequent numbing (previous unable to feel more than a “not unpleasing sadness”), Bartleby has been bludgeoned to exhaustion. Nothing pleases him about this world. The narrator, at different times, wants to help Bartleby. But we have been warned that the narrator is a safe man who thinks the easiest path is also the best. His pity for Bartleby turns to revulsion (see the passage from pp. 24-25, above).
The narrator’s plight works through the themes of responsibility and compassion. His obligations, in one sense, are nothing. But as far as Bartleby is a living, suffering being, and that both men are “sons of Adam,” the narrator arguably should do all that he can. To what extent is the narrator supposed to help the melancholic scrivener? Has he failed as a human being if he has done any less than all he can? After asserting that after a certain point, pity becomes revulsion, he defends the transformation: “They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart.
It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill” (24-25). Yet the narrator goes on to describe the transformation as defensive. Although he denies the charge that the pity-to-revulsion change is due to selfishness, his explanation of the motives behind it seem like little more than a selfishness that is philosophically justified. At work here is what Toni Morrison (an admirer of Melville) would call a shortage of love. Ironically, on the day his pity turns to revulsion, the narrator was on his way to Church.
The narrator never does make it to Church that day, and the symbolism is obvious. Though he was on his way to see a celebrity preacher, religion’s highest ideals do not win a place in the narrator’s heart: Melville, as he does in many of his works, is taking a small jab at religion and its inability to change men meaningfully for the better. The narrator will try to help Bartleby return home, but we will see that there are limits to what he feels he can do. Pages 25-38 Third Section (pp. 25-38) Summary The narrator summons Bartleby.
When questioned about his past, Bartleby simply replies that he would prefer not to answer. The narrator tries to convince Bartleby to take up some of the normal duties around the office. When he says he would prefer not to, Nippers bursts into the room, furious. The narrator tells Nippers that he would prefer for Nippers to leave. The narrator realizes that of late, he has been using the word “prefer” constantly. Turkey comes in, suggesting that Bartleby take to drinking to improve his moods, so that he can work. Turkey is using the word “prefer” in nearly every sentence, and the narrator orries that Bartleby’s presence is somehow contaminating them. But he does not dismiss Bartleby just then. The next day, Bartleby stops copying altogether. The narrator realizes that working by the dim light of the window (which faces a wall) has temporarily damaged Bartleby’s eyes. But even though he cannot copy, he refuses to do other work. Some days later, Bartleby announces to the narrator that he has given up copying. Even if his eyes should get better, he will copy nothing. Time passes, and Bartleby is still a fixture around the office.
Finally, the narrator dismisses him, giving him six days to go. But the six days pass, and Bartleby is still there. He gives Bartleby some money, telling him firmly but gently that he must go. His speech assumes that Bartleby will leave; he asks Bartleby to lock up on his way out. On his way home that night, the narrator congratulates himself on his handling of the situation. But the next morning, his anxiety increases as he nears work. At the corner of Broadway and Canal Street, he hears men betting money on something, and to his ears it seems the whole city is thinking of Bartleby.
When the narrator arrives at the office, at first it seems that Bartleby is gone. But he’s there, and he tells the narrator to wait before entering. The narrator goes on a walk, and when he returns, he confronts Bartleby. But Bartleby is both passive and unyielding, as always. At first, the narrator’s temper rises, but he remembers a murder that took place in a Wall Street office, when two colleagues lost control of themselves, and he calms himself. Eventually, he reconciles himself to Bartleby’s presence. He decides to let Bartleby stay. But professional friends who come to the office find the arrangement bizarre.
The narrator worries that his reputation is being damaged by the bizarre man who stays at his office, so he suggests again that Bartleby should leave. Bartleby will not. So the narrator moves his office. On the final moving day, the narrator is slightly choked up as he leaves Bartleby. Analysis The descriptions of Bartleby continue the parallels between the scrivener and a phantom. When summoned, Bartleby “noiselessly slid into view” (25), as a ghost does. One of his replies is described as “cadaverous” (26). He has come to haunt the narrator, as a double. They share the same office space, and the narrator cannot seem to be rid of im. The office space of the modern business world undergoes some interesting conceptualizations in this section. At first, the narrator calls our attention to the desolateness of the office and of Wall Street: “Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness” (23). There are parallels between Bartleby’s experience of the workplace at night and his experience of the workplace in general share a similarity: he sees something that no one else sees. The desolation of Wall Street is part of Bartleby’s essential perception of it.
The literal desolation at night is paralleled by the spiritual desolation during the day. Bartleby sees both, and through him the narrator gets some sense of them. The narrator also makes an interesting move by describing the office as a site of savagery. He cites the example of a recent Wall Street murder, and explains why an office can be conducive to otherwise unthinkable acts: “Often it had occurred to me in my ponderings upon the subject, that had that altercation taken place in the public street, or at a private residence, it would not have terminated as it did.
It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations . . . ” (33-34). The office, a site of modern economic systems and progress, becomes a space like the jungle island in The Lord of the Flies. Something about the space is dehumanizing, and makes murder possible. Finally, the narrator’s resolve to help Bartleby weakens, and it’s because of his work. Apparently, the modern office also makes possible the neglect of another human being.
The narrator is certainly not an exception among humans for his choices: he puts up with more from Bartleby than anyone else does. But in the end, he makes choices that amount to abandonment of Bartleby. If his action is something any human would do, then the abandonment of Bartleby is a comment on humanity. Pages 38-46 Fourth Section (pp. 38-46) Summary Some time after the move, the narrator receives a visit from the new tenants of his old offices. They ask him to do something about Bartleby. The narrator protests that he has nothing to do with Bartleby. But a few days later, a large group of people is waiting for the narrator at the door.
Among them is the landlord of the old office building. They all insist that the narrator must do something, since he was the last person to have anything to do with Bartleby. The new tenants turned Bartleby out of the office, but now he haunts the building, sleeping in the entry at night. One of them even threatens to complain of this incident to the papers. The narrator agrees to meet with Bartleby. Bartleby is nonchalant and listless as ever. The narrator tries to propose different occupations for Bartleby, but Bartleby says each time that the suggested job would not please him.
Finally, in desperation, the narrator offers Bartleby a place to stay in his own home. Bartleby refuses, and the narrator leaves him. Hoping to avoid the anti-Bartleby corps, the narrator stays out of work for a few days. When he returns, he finds a note telling him that Bartleby has been arrested and moved to the Tombs as a vagrant. Bartleby offered no resistance. A whole procession of people went with him through the busy streets of noontime Manhattan. The narrator goes to the Tombs (the name for the Halls of Justice), and asks to see Bartleby.
He finds Bartleby in one of the yards, facing a wall. The narrator fears that from the windows murderers and thieves are watching. Bartleby acknowledges him, but the narrator’s attempts to cheer him up are fruitless. Bartleby replies calmly, “I know where I am” (43). The narrator bribes a turnkey who dubs himself the grub-man to make sure Bartleby is well fed. When the grub-man offers Bartleby dinner, Bartleby says he would prefer not to eat just then. When the narrator returns several days later, he searches for Bartleby all around the complex.
Finally he finds Bartleby dead, huddled at the base of a wall. He learns that Bartleby had stopped eating: he preferred not to. The narrator has a final bit of information to share with us. Some time after Bartleby’s death, he heard a strange rumor. Before working as a scrivener, Bartleby had been a clerk at the Dead Letter Office at Washington. He lost the job due to a change in the administration. The narrator is horrified by the idea: for one who was already prone to melancholy, work at the Dead Letter Office would have been a dark and terrible thing.
The undelivered letters are burned by the cartload. The narrator imagines letters bringing hopeful news, or forgiveness, or needed money; but all the intended recipients are now gone, the letters thwarted from their purposes. He finishes with the famous ending: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity! ” (46). Analysis The ghostly descriptions of Bartleby are now extended to the narrator. He describes going up the stairs to his old office as “going upstairs to my old haunt” (42). The language is part of the expansion of Bartleby’s ghostly characteristics to the narrator and later, to all of humanity.
We see that Bartleby does not want to do anything; living itself tires him. In this way, “Bartleby the Scrivener” is more than just a didactic tract on the economic world of Melville’s day. The conditions of life are not easily changed, and the depictions of office sterility and isolation in a large, unnatural world seem equally applicable today. Bartleby is a creature unable to adapt to this world, because he is too honest about what appeals to him. Nothing in life excites him. When the narrator tries to suggest different occupations to Bartleby, the scrivener’s response is always the same: “I would prefer not to. The narrator’s offer to have Bartleby stay at his own home seems initially generous, but this belated offer of hospitality comes from a fear of scandal: a lawyer has threatened to publish the case in the papers. Yet one of the accomplishments of the story is that our narrator is basically a decent man. His abandonment of Bartleby is in no way exceptional, nor are we meant to see the narrator as more cruel or uncaring than the rest of humanity. If he fails Bartleby, we also must concede that most of us would fail him as well. Several times in the story, we are made to question Bartleby’s sanity.
Ginger Nut gleefully suggests that Bartleby is insane: “I think, sir, he’s a little luny” (16). The narrator also apparently shares the opinion, as he confides to the grub-man that Bartleby is “a little deranged” (44). But Bartleby, whatever his problems may be, is fully aware of the world around him. When the narrator greets Bartleby in prison, he’s condescending to him, speaking to him in the way that one condescends to the mad: “And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass. ” Bartleby’s reply is concise and curt: “I know where I am” (43).
He is aware of the world. Notice also that there is a double meaning in the exchange. Both Bartleby and the narrator could be referring to the world itself. Bartleby is asserting that he can see the world around him clearly, and he apparently finds nothing to excite him. Environment has been important so far to the story, and Melville’s concise and powerful description of the prison yard continues the trend. Death imagery is abundant. The description comes not during the first visit, but right before the narrator finds Bartleby’s death.
He describes the character of the masonry as “Egyptian,” and mentions the “soft imprisoned turf” growing underfoot. “The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung” (45). For people of Melville’s day, even more so than now, “Egyptian” character would recall death, as the Egyptian civilization was known mostly through its funerary objects and elaborate burial practices. Incidentally, the Halls of Justice are called “The Tombs. ” The image of the turf is ambiguous.
Is it an image of hope, or of imprisonment? “The heart of the eternal pyramids” is a pretty phrase, but the pyramids, it must be remembered, were tombs. Death itself is the only constant. The image of birds dropping seeds, which grow in spite of the hostile environment, is lyrical and powerful. But is the grass a metaphor for hope, and life’s persistence, the possibility of survival and beauty in a harsh environment? Or does the phrase “imprisoned turf” dominate the image? The grass then becomes battered, trapped life, with no hope of escaping the “Egyptian character” of the Tombs.
Mortality is not a theme here in the usual sense. Bartleby chooses his death, detaching from life in stages and sliding towards an inevitable end. The real death is more than an event in time: death is diffuse, a spiritual gloom pervading the empty Wall Street landscape, the imposing stonework of the prison, and the Dead Letter Office where Bartleby supposedly worked. Living is not the opposite of death, but a condition continually assaulted and permeated by it. The final rumor is haunting and dark. We learn also that Bartleby lost the Dead Letter Office job due to an administration change.
The doubling continues: remember that the narrator lost his position due to bureaucratic change as well. Here, the doubling is expanded. Bartleby is a phantom double not only for the narrator, but for all of humanity. The Dead Letter Office is a place of supreme gloom, where evidence of human mortality and the futility of our best intentions would have been unavoidable. The narrator, a man who adapts to this life, who thrives in the world that exhausted Bartleby, cannot help but be moved by Bartleby’s vision. The tone of his final statement